As Hugh Grant ages, something is becoming clear: The actor’s most compelling attribute is not his floppy forelock but the vein of charming self-loathing that has always been pulsing under his masterfully mussed-up hair. The posh stuttering, the artful dishevelment, the way his characters blink and back away (from women, certainly, but also from men as chums or colleagues) are all gestures of a very cultivated, very British embarrassment. Oh, dear God, am I really an Oxford graduate mucking about as a movie star? his pouting mouth pleads, while magazine editors put him on Sexiest Man lists. How can you stand me when I’m such a delightfully horrid, selfish man? his characters flirt.
Grant is game for a new level of meta-ha-ha, joke’s-on-me in Music and Lyrics. But with Drew Barrymore as his costar, this bland, light romantic comedy insists on keeping the commentary as disposable as one of the ’80s gumball tunes Grant used to swivel to as Alex Fletcher, a washed-up ’80s pop star. Alex had some hits in a Wham!-like band called PoP, and it shows: Grant readily embraces bad hair (that of a has-been desperately trying to accommodate the ’00s), bad tight shirts, and a cute spritz of eau de failure. Having split with his PoP partner — the lyric-writing half of the duo, who went on to even greater success — Alex makes his dough singing solo on the nostalgia circuit (high school reunions, amusement parks). The faintly idiotic gigs are enough to bankroll a modestly comfortable, unattached, showbiz-adjacent lifestyle on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (Writer-director Marc Lawrence, who did nice stuff with Grant and Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks Notice, is himself a denizen, happiest when shooting in the real nabe.)
What Grant really needs is a female costar who can bust him on his shtick — Bullock was particularly well matched, Renée Zellweger cracked the code in her Bridget Jones outings, Emma Thompson could do it with one blink of an eye. What the star gets in Barrymore as Sophie Fisher, instead, is a sunshiny spirit who always appears in need of a little TLC herself — a huggable, guileless woman who, from all vibes, wouldn’t ever cross paths with an early-MTV fossil like this guy. Sophie traipses into Alex’s life on the rebound from a bad relationship, working as a freelance plant waterer — what a great NYC profession! — just as Alex is at a loss for words. A highly marketed teen-pop goddess named Cora (unknown dewdrop Haley Bennett, channeling Shakira/Madonna) is interested in commissioning a song from the old dude because he’s, like, soooo retro. Alex has music — but no lyrics.
It turns out that Sophie — what are the odds? — has a natural flair with phrases, and even while overwatering the plants, the lines she noodles out loud are applauded as if writ by Betty Comden. (Or at least we agree to believe that fantasy; the song she ”writes” with Alex, conjured in fact by Fountains of Wayne’s own wit Adam Schlesinger, is as intentionally, perfectly forgettable as a stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike.) And so a new songwriting team is born, emotional wounds are healed for both Alex and Sophie, and romance dances in the air.
Grant’s talents, though, are cramped by his costar’s geniality and youth. Alex becomes a little more gallant and protective than he needs to, and that big-brotherliness makes the part where he and Sophie spend a grown-up night together a little unintentionally…skeevy. Grant does best when he’s got a womanly costar closer to his emotional and chronological age who smacks him around a bit when he gets too fluttery. Or at least laughs affectionately at that hate-me-please thing he does.
Music and Lyrics includes some great throwback faux music videos from PoP’s wonder years (it turns out Grant is an admirable pelvis thruster who’d probably do anything for a shot at boy-band-parody glory on SNL), as well as a bilious suggestion for a reality TV show pitting ’80s pop has-beens against one another in a celebrity boxing match. But really, Grant is at his most comfortably uncomfortable when he’s playing present-day Alex, trotting out the old songs and the old moves in shows for moisturizer-challenged women in their 40s, while their bored, flabby husbands look on, thoroughly unthreatened.